Snails And Oak Leaf Lettuce

You can pick the snails for this salad yourself.  I have done this, though it is quite emotional.  A few years ago on the Tiree in the Hebrides we collected a positive feast’s worth of snails, but what was to follow was too much for one of our party.  You have to starve them, so they were left in a bucket covered with pierced plastic wrap to prevent escape and left to purge.  Days seemed to pass watching the poor captive snails leaving trails of snail poo on the sides of the bucket.  Eventually someone cracked and freed them, much to everyone’s relief.  If you are of harder heart and can get over this difficult stage, which takes about four days, you should then par-boil your snails for about 20 minutes.  Remove them from their shells with a pin. (Alternatively, you can replace them in their shells and smother them with butter, garlic and parsley.)  Simmer for 1 hour, by which point they will be ready for the salad.  There are American snail farms now, so fresh snails are available.

Well, this recipe was a roller coaster.  The high of finding “fresh” snails down to the reality of what I had actually found, all the way to the rush of having everything work out in the end.

While meandering through my local Asian market, I found a huge selection of frozen snails. Well, they actually had 6 different varieties, but when you think about it, when was the last time you saw any snail options at a local megamarket?

I picked up a tray of frozen rice snails, thinking that I had found a better option than canned snails.

Per the instructions in the foreword, I covered the snails with water and boiled them for 20 minutes.  The water turned an opaque milky color, and scum rose to the top of the pot.  I skimmed multiple times as the snails boiled.

Once the 20 minutes was up, I dumped the snails out, rinsed them with water and my wife and I began trying to remove the meat from the shells.  “Trying” being the operative word.  Every time I got just a little bit of snail out of the shell, the meat tore, and what I did manage to wring from the shells was scrawny and pathetic.

At this point, I remembered reading about escargot from another cookbook I have:

I could lie to you.   I could tell you to use fresh snails, implying that we, of course, use only fresh ones at the restaurant.  The truth?  I don’t know any restaurant, have never in twenty-eight years seen any U.S. restaurant–no matter how good or prestigious–use fresh snails.  Oh, a lot of them have snail shells, but they stuff them with snails out of a can.  I’m sure someone uses fresh.  Somewhere.  But let’s face it, even if you could get fresh snails (and I would have no idea where to send you), by the time you’ve had a good look at the things in their living, natural glory, by the time you’ve dug them out of their shells for the first time…you’re likely not going to want to eat them.

So do as the pros do:  Find the best, priciest, preferably French canned snails (though the Taiwanese ones have been fooling the French chefs for years) and use those.

There we go.  Anthony Bourdain has absolved me for using canned snails.  My wife ran to her workplace and came back with this:

Highfalutin canned French snails!

I finely chopped a some shallots and garlic cloves, and added them and a splash of olive oil to a heated pan to soften.

In the mean time, I began pulling leaves off of my head of lettuce. Sadly, this is not actual Oak Leaf Lettuce.  In my research for this dish, I found that an acceptable substitute was red leaf butterhead lettuce, so I picked a large head of it up.  I despise making substitutions, but some things I’m just not able to find despite my best efforts.

With the shallots and garlic finally soft, I added a cup of red wine to the pan and turned up the heat.  I was instructed to reduce the wine down until I had a movable “gunge”.

As the wine reduced, four pieces of toast were broken up and added to the lettuce leaves.

Finally, I cracked open the can of snails and pulled one out.  You’ll have to take my word for it, but this is a huge improvement over what I was pulling out of the shells before.  The snail meat was added to the shallot/garlic/wine sauce pan, seasoned with salt and pepper and then heated until everything was at the proper temperature.

The snails and wine reduction was added to the bowl along with a few splashes of Vinaigrette and a big handful of chopped curly parsley.

After a quick tossing, the salad was finished. The wine reduction really set the tone for the salad as tangy and savory.  The lettuce and parsley added peppery notes, while the snails… well, they really didn’t add much at all.  My wife and I talked about it, and we both agree that if we hadn’t have known that snails were in the salad, we’d have never guessed that they were anything more than little meaty bits of cooked mushrooms.  This is an interesting and tasty salad, but not something that I’d go out of my way to make on a regular basis.

One down, one hundred and two to go.